McKees Rocks, Pennsylvania is just 15 minutes from downtown Pittsburgh. It has a rich history. The first American Eagle Outfitters opened there in 1912. A native American burial mound in the borough is the earliest place of human habitation in the region. But while Pittsburgh is experiencing a renaissance, the blue-collar borough is still struggling to get back on track.
Taris Vrcek, executive director of the McKees Rocks Community Development Corporation, spent several years working in Manhattan, but a desire to improve his hometown brought him back. He said that in a lot of ways, McKees Rocks is still the same town he grew up in, but after the factories closed and people moved out, new people moved in to take advantage of the low-cost housing.
They didn’t always have steady employment. Poverty has damaged McKees Rocks' work ethic, he said.
“This has always been a blue-collar working class town,” Vrcek said. “I think some of that has been lost. At the same time, these are our friends and neighbors. I think it’s our job to empower them.”
He said the borough can build on its manufacturing history by taking advantage of its accessibility by road, rail and river.
Nearby West Carson Street is undergoing improvements, and national transit mogul CSX is investing $60 million to build a new rail terminal on the former site of the Pittsburgh and Lake Erie railroad. A decision to open Chartiers Avenue to two-way traffic has opened up McKees Rocks’ central business district.
Vrcek said those changes have all had really positive effects on residents’ perceptions.
“People now feel that this is a downtown, as in the past it felt really dysfunctional,” he said.
The McKees Rocks Community Development Corporation has also been working to renovate the Roxian Theater. They found an investor in John Pergle, who owns the Thunderbird Café in Lawrenceville. They’re partnering to turn the 1920s era vaudeville theater into a modern music venue.
“We know from all the market studies we’ve done that this is really a unique way to attract people,” Vrcek said.
They’ve had success with with the arts in the past. Feastival, an annual event featuring food trucks and live music, drew 4,000 people last year.
It’s part of a larger strategy to promote growth.
Promoter Ziggy Sawdust recently purchased an old catholic school building on Cutler Street with plans to develop a center for artists. He said he sees potential in using the arts as a redevelopment strategy.
Look at Lawrenceville, he said.
“The presence of artists really helped to rejuvenate the area," said Sawdust. "I don’t see why it would be any different in McKees Rocks.”
Rebuilding A Brand
The Jenny Lee brand was a local staple until a Thanksgiving Day fire led them to shut down in 2008.
Scott Baker, president of Five Generation Bakers, revived the family business and the brand two years later. With 45 people on staff, Five Generation is now one of the largest employers in the region. And according to Vrcek, they take special effort to hire local workers and help them pursue homeownership opportunities.
Baker admits they don't make the sweet treats people fondly remember, but they’ve had success with cinnamon swirl breads. They’re in it for the long haul, he said.
“We want to be responsible partners in the community,” Baker said. “If our success continues, and we need to build another bakery, we would never abandon this. This would always be our headquarters.”
While projects like the renovation of the Roxian and the growth of Five Generation Bakers have the staff at the McKees Rocks Community Development Corporation optimistic, borough leaders still have social welfare challenges like poverty and mental and physical health to overcome.
Hannah Hardy, program manager for the Chronic Disease Prevention Program at the Allegheny County Health Department, said she’s collaborating with organizations working to get healthy foods into corner stores in areas like McKees Rocks that lack grocery stores.
“We have a grant aimed at increasing access to fresh and healthy food,” Hardy said. “As part of that, we are implementing Fresh Corners — a healthy corner store program — and they actually have three stores in the McKees Rocks area.”
Denise Macerelli, deputy director at the Allegheny County Office of Behavioral Health, said a group of civic leaders and health and human service providers came together in February to begin addressing widespread depression, drug dependency and alcohol abuse.
These issues may take years to tackle, but Vrcek said the partnerships to deal with them are already in place.
They’re also working to stay ahead of the gentrification problems affecting neighborhoods in Pittsburgh’s east end.
“We’re trying to be very aggressive with that,” Vrcek said. “We have a small enough community that we can get our arms around it (now).”
Vrcek envisions a McKees Rocks that takes advantage of its riverfronts and green spaces. He sees a bustling business district with plenty of affordable housing, and he said he’s confident they’ve laid the groundwork to make this vision a reality.
“Things are in place for us to really succeed,” he said. “And ultimately have that community that we dream of.”